Witness a star being born at Grant Barnhart's exhibition "Remember Me When" at OKOK Gallery.
It’s not often you get to see a star being born, but if you stop by Grant Barnhart’s show “Remember Me When” at Ballard’s OKOK Gallery, you just may be able to look back someday and say you were there when.
Barnhart’s style fuses hard-edged abstraction with a wild staccato of figures and fireworks, a blend of graphic clarity and expressionistic brushwork. Mostly he spotlights stereotypes of American culture — football players, rodeo riders, cheerleaders — yet by the time they filter through the artist’s psyche, they’ve gone all dada. Barnhart’s addled brand of neo-Americana is built on order, chaos, dark omens and a touch of humor. The paintings stand as an early 21st-century answer to the likes of Grant Wood and Edward Hopper.
A dozen-plus large-sized paintings circle the room, a few too many for the size of the room and the intensity of the work. The real knockouts are the most layered and complex, especially the epic 2008 “How to Break the Moon,” “Night Moves” and “Field Notes,” which carry the show. Their pileup of contrasts is irresistible: bright colors against dark, motion against stillness, formal designs against spontaneous mark-making, drips and spatters.
Some of the simpler images slip into territory already mined by others — Sigmar Polke, Elizabeth Peyton and the late Jean-Michel Basquiat come to mind — with poured colors, piquant portraiture and scrawled messages. Images like the slick “Trophy Wife (Tiffany)” could stand in as advertising art.
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Among the paintings, a playful installation of rickety ladders stands within the gallery, splayed and propped about, going nowhere. The installation is titled “Bailout,” and — in a mockery of the economic package that dominated the end of the presidential campaign — it’s priced at $700 billion. (Gallery director Charlie Kitchings points out that there’s wiggle room on the price.)
Barnhart lives in the Seattle area but hails from Topeka, Kan., where he was born in 1978. The imagery in “Remember Me When” looks back at his early upbringing “with childhood nostalgia and adult dread,” according to information about the show. The artist references Warren Buffett’s line, “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken” as an introduction to the work.
You can feel the weight of those chains at the back of the gallery, in the project room, where Barnhart shows “Between Spaces,” a 7 ½-minute digital video loop. The grainy footage casts a feverish montage of football, rodeo, fireworks, cheerleaders — the stuff of the paintings — against an eerie, thumping soundtrack. The imagery turns from innocence to a nightmarish medley of brutality and glitz, testosterone, bare midriffs and vicious girl fights. “Between Spaces” perfectly complements the paintings and makes a compelling stand-alone piece, showing Barnhart’s versatility.
Come January, Kitching says OKOK will be getting a new name. He didn’t want to follow tradition and put his own name on the door, so he and his wife Amanda chose Ambach and Rice, their mothers’ maiden names. OKOK got its start as a sort of retail and art fusion that didn’t pan out and has been solely dedicated to galleryhood for the past year and a half.
Sheila Farr: email@example.com